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Homeless Set Up Camps On School Grounds, But School Board Members Demand ‘No Sweeps’

Seattle, WA – Seattle students trying to return to school for in-person learning for this first time in over a year are having to contend with massive homeless encampments that have taken over school grounds in their absence.

But instead of demanding the growing tent communities be removed, the Seattle School Board president and one of its directors have urged Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan not to clear them out, KTTH reported.

“I want to state very clearly this is not an ask for a sweep!” Seattle School Board Director Zachary DeWolf said in a recent email he sent to Durkan, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, and three Seattle City councilmembers, according to the news outlet.

“I do not believe in sweeps,” DeWolf wrote. “People experiencing homelessness need housing and resources not traumatic sweeps of their livelihoods and belongings.”

The school board director provided no solutions, but did urge the city officials to give the schools “some support,” KTTH reported.

“Do you have any ideas for how to help?” DeWolf asked.

DeWolf and Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson released a joint statement about the issue on March 28.

“We demand sweeps NEVER be performed on school grounds, adjacent or elsewhere in this City,” they said at the time. “Our students deserve to see the adults in their lives behave compassionately and responsibly in the face of a tragically mounting homelessness crisis. Sweeps are not a form of compassion, nor do they demonstrate responsible adult behavior.”

Hampson and DeWolf further demanded that Durkan and the City Council use Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds and “any COVID relief dollars available” to “IMMEDIATELY begin case management and outreach, with full collaboration from community and schools as a collective embrace of our neighbors.”

Durkan recently released a statement saying that it is ultimately up to SPS to decide what to do about encampments on school property, KOMO reported.

“The decision of whether to address an encampment on school property is up to Seattle Public Schools,” the mayor said. “Recently, the Seattle School Board President issued a statement decrying City outreach strategies that may eventually lead to a removal and demanding that removals should ‘never be performed on school grounds, adjacent, or elsewhere in the City.’”

Homeless encampments have taken root at both Edmond S. Meany Middle School at 201 21st Avenue and at Broadview-Thomson K-8 at 13052 Greenwood Avenue, KOMO reported.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) said in a statement that the encampment at Broadview-Thomson is technically not on school grounds and said there is a fence separating the properties, according to KOMO.

But residents said the tent city is in an area where children used to play sports and pass through to get to school or to go home.

Outraged parents, guardians, and area residents have been demanding for months that the potentially dangerous problem be fixed prior to students returning to class, but that never happened.

Residents said the school district previously assured them the encampments would be gone by September of 2020.

In February, a woman died of a drug overdose in the tent city, neighbors told KOMO.

“Her body remained in the middle of street for hours,” resident Annie Geer said.

Substance abuse and theft has become a rampant problem in the area since the encampment was established, neighbors say.

According to multiple reports, there is shelter space available and resources have been offered to those living in the tents, but they have refused to accept it, KTTH reported.

“I feel like sometimes the only recourse I have is to move out of Seattle,” Geer told KOMO. “It feels like taxpayers have no recourse against this. We have no rights — all the rights seem to belong to the homeless.”

“Obviously, nobody is taking the problem seriously,” said Bill Steele, who lives near one of the schools.

One group of concerned neighbors has written a memo to SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau, warning that the homeless encampment “poses a threat to the safety of the students and staff,” KTTH reported.

“All parents need to speak up and let the school board know that our schools are not campgrounds,” Steele told KOMO.

Ryle Goodrich said his six-year-old son is among the children who went back to school this week.

“You question the judgment of those in charge of keeping your children safe,” Goodrich told KOMO. “I am calling on the school board to allow Mayor Jenny Durkan to take care of these encampments as she has in the past, which would be to offer services and then guide campers out of the park and let children return to school.”

SPS said on April 2 that it is “working in partnership” with the city “to support community members” living in the encampments, KOMO reported.

“The pandemic has deepened inequities, including access to housing,” the district said. “This is not a problem with easy solutions, but we are committed to working in partnership to address it together and do so in a compassionate way.”

“Our schools will reopen in a phased approach as planned,” SPS added.

But many parents said they are unwilling to send their children to school if the homeless encampments are not taken down, KOMO reported.

“I know a lot of parents who wanted to send their children back to school but are unwilling to because they don’t feel safe,” Goodrich told the news outlet. “We are house shopping already – out of Seattle.”

Stelle said he would like the encampments to be cleaned up and for those living there to be “connected with the resources they need,” KOMO reported.

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Written by
Holly Matkin

Holly is a former probation and parole officer who is married to a sheriff’s deputy. She is a regular contributor to Signature Montana magazine, and has written feature articles for Distinctly Montana magazine.

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